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The Future of Whiskey Island

Friday, January 11, 2002 at 5:12 PM

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At the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie - just inside the Cleveland harbor - lies a tiny plot of land known as Whiskey Island. Once the site of a distillery, the island today is home to a salt mine, a small marina - and some of the last remaining undeveloped lakefront in Cleveland. One local group would like to keep the island open to public access and turn it into a public park. But competing interests could relocate the Port of Cleveland to Whiskey Island. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer: Many people may have heard of Whiskey Island, but few have ever been there. That’s not surprising, because the island is hard to find. From the Cuyahoga River, trucks and trains access the industrial side by a bridge from the western shore. Other visitors must negotiate the maze of roads just east of Edgewater Park. Past a wastewater treatment plant and docks for the Port of Cleveland, a narrow lane dumps visitors at the gates of the Whiskey Island Marina. It’s open to the public during the boating season - but may not be for much longer. Ed Hauser is a member of the marina. He’s also president of the Friends of Whiskey Island.

Ed Hauser: From the parking lot over to the river and the Conrail fence up to the lake is 20 acres of green space up for sale since 1999. And this is what the Friends of Whiskey Island are proposing to become a public park.

KS: Along Cleveland’s Lake Erie shore, less than two miles offer public access to what many consider one of the city’s greatest assets. While much of Whiskey Island is actually man-made landfill, these 20 acres remain undeveloped, home to shrubby trees, native grasses - and birds.

EH: Oh, there’s Paula. She comes down here at lunchtime and checks out the birds. I tagged along with you once and you were showing me some things…

Paula: Yeah, you know it’s the old story. If you don’t look, you don’t see. You know, anything could be here. I’ve had snowy owls sitting out on the pier there and we had the jagers that came. I’m hoping for a snowy owl today.

KS: The island also offers stunning vistas of Lake Eire, the Cuyahoga, and the Cleveland skyline. For more than two years, Hauser has been trying to convince public officials of the value of saving this land as a park - even extending the Cleveland bike path across the river and connecting the east side with the west. But so far, neither the state Department of Natural Resources nor the city has signed on to his idea. Hauser believes there’s a reason for that.

EH: Now with the Port Authority, the original master plan was to bulkhead about 300 feet out into the lake behind the Coast Guard station and connect it with the ore dock. And they were going to push all this land in and fill in this little bay, basically, and make this a shipping dock. To level Whiskey Island to build a new imported steel facility - and you know, I work in the local steel industry - I would be very against that.

KS: The Cuyahoga County-Cleveland Port Authority - which operates the Port of Cleveland - already owns nearly all of the lakeshore property between Edgewater Park and Burke Lakefront Airport. A separate Department of Port Control runs Burke and Cleveland Hopkins. The maritime Port Authority currently has dock and storage facilities at two locations. One is the Cleveland Bulk Terminal west of Whiskey Island for Great Lakes freight. The other is the International Dock beside the Cleveland Browns Stadium, where ocean-going freighters can load and off-load cargo in the port’s foreign trade zone.

Gary Failor has been executive director of the Port Authority since 1993. In 1998, the port created its new master plan that would expand the city’s dock and storage facilities as need demanded. Three years ago, shipping on the Great Lakes was at an all-time high and LTV Steel’s furnaces were still going full-blast. But lower lake levels and a bankruptcy decision have created a decided drop in port activity. Failor believes that downturn is temporary.

Gary Failor: I’ve been in this business 25 years and it’s a cyclical business. It comes and it goes. It comes and goes with the economy and it comes and goes with the long-term steel business. That’s why steel stocks are called cyclical stocks. Frankly, I think we’re just in the normal cycle and we’ll see that change again. Our hope is that LTV is bought by another firm and continues to make steel as they have in the past.

KS: Under former mayor Mike White’s administration, the Port Authority’s expansion plans were tied to another big city project, the creation of a new convention center. Some proposals call for the new complex to be located on the lakeshore. That would mean relocating many of the port’s facilities, a move that could cost an estimated $700 million. Although a new convention center could bring more income to downtown, there are those who believe that decisions about lakefront development are long overdue for public scrutiny. Genevieve Ray is director of the Waterfront Coalition, a local group that wants to make that planning process more transparent.

Genevieve Ray: It may be that the county commissioners - who name a few of the members - and the mayor - who names a lot of the members of the Port Authority board - someone could say, well, that is your public oversight, is your elected officials. But I think we’ve all wished for a more transparent process, so that we can really have a community discussion, a community dialogue about these major forces that shape our economy and our environment.

KS: Ray, Hauser and others believe that under the White administration, many of the decisions taken about Cleveland’s waterfront were made in a vacuum, without public input and without looking at the big picture. But new Mayor Jane Campbell has already indicated a willingness to explore changes in Cleveland’s waterfront through a more citizen-based approach. That could give residents more public access to the lake. Until then, the fate of Whiskey Island remains in the balance. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN.

Additional Information

Whiskey Island History

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